In the 1860s, the Homestead Act offered cheap land out west, encouraging many people to head out to the Great Plains and become farmers. When they arrived, however, they realized how difficult farming on the Great Plains really was.
Here are some of the problems they encountered:
- Social isolation
- High prices (there weren’t many general stores, grain elevators, or railroads, so those businesses basically had a monopoly and could charge very high prices)
- Low crop prices (due to oversupply of corn and wheat from all of these new farmers)
As time went on the farmers started to get together to combat their social isolation. They formed Grange societies and had dances and barn raisings. When they got together for these social events, they started to realize they all had the same problems. Then they started to get political and do things like ask the government to step in and regulate the railroads. Several states did make regulations that became known as “Granger Laws”, but the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional because the federal government (not the states) has the power to regulate interstate commerce. However, congress did pass the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. That law was the first (albeit weak – no real change came until later because the law was too vague and watered down) step in regulating monopolies.
As the Grange movement became even more political it snowballed into a new organization – Farmers Alliances. There were speakers like Mary Elizabeth Lease who went around telling the farmers to “Raise less corn and more hell” (in other words – stop driving corn prices down by oversupplying it and demand the government to help you).
By the early 1890s many farmers on the Great Plains decided to “raise more hell” and form a political party. They called it The Populist Party. The party’s platform demanded several things, including:
- Regulation or government ownership of railroads
- A progressive federal income tax (like what we have today – the more money you make, the more you pay)
- Direct election of senators (like what we have today, but in the past everyday people didn’t elect their senators)
- Free and unlimited coinage of silver* (“free silver” for short)
*What does “free and unlimited coinage of silver” mean? It basically means they wanted money to be backed by silver as well as gold. You see, money in the U.S. used to be backed by real precious metal. At that time you could exchange your paper money for real gold. That was called the “gold standard”. Since there is only so much gold in the world (and only so much owned by the United States), that limited the amount of paper money the U.S. could print. If money was backed by both gold and silver, that would allow for more money to be printed, and that would cause inflation (which is what the farmers wanted). They thought inflation would solve their monetary problems by increasing the prices they could get for their corn and wheat.
In the election of 1896, the Populist Party decided to back the Democratic nominee for President, William Jennings Bryan, after his famous Cross of Gold speech (where Bryan denounced the gold standard).
The Populist Party also tried to get support from low-wage factory workers (mostly immigrants at that time) back east, but their desire for inflation/free silver was unpopular with the factory workers. Ultimately William Jennings Bryan lost the presidential election to William McKinley (the Republican candidate) and the U.S. went on the gold standard. The Populist Party disintegrated as well. None of the demands of the Populist Party were met at that time, but over the next thirty years Progressive reformers continued the fight and won!
Flow chart summary:
Homestead Act -> Financial and social difficulties -> Grange Movement -> Farmers Alliances -> Populist Party -> Bryan loses Election of 1896 -> End of Populist movement
Thanks for reading!